The Commons: They are but humans

Despite so much evidence to the contrary

The Scene. It is helpful, if only every so often, to recall that these men and women are but human. At least in the biological sense. If you prick them, they do bleed. If they sing, they do so awkwardly. If they slip on icy sidewalks, they do dislocate their shoulders.

If they sound otherwise like something quite apart from their fellow humans, it is heartening to know that at this time of the year, they do, at least for the sake of the cameras, feel a certain empathy toward their fellow members of mankind.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Harper said this afternoon, having easily dismissed Jack Layton’s last question on this the last day before the House breaks, “while I am on my feet, it may be the last time in 2010, let me just take the opportunity to wish you and all members of the House a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, Joyeuses fêtes et bonne année.”

Gleefully, the government side jumped up to applaud their leader’s display of basic humanity.

A moment later, the same members, at least as gleefully, were up to applaud the Public Safety Minister’s contention that a Liberal backbencher was primarily concerned with “how to ensure that criminals can get out on the street as quickly as possible.” And a moment after that they were up again, their glee runneth over, as John Baird saluted a Conservative backbencher as having “acted in a high ethical fashion” in duly firing a member of her staff who leaked confidential parliamentary files to various lobbyists.

Herein would seem to lie something of a disconnect.

If it is generally indisputable, despite periodic accusations to the contrary, that these men and women are human beings, it is perhaps particularly troublesome that they do not generally sound like human beings. Like how there are sounds that only dogs can hear, there are manners of speaking that only politicians can speak in.

The tone is almost always at least somewhat facetious. The air is of something like a put-on. Imagine rhetorical professional wrestling—often no less silly than those clashes of men in tights and generally no less violent. It is difficult to describe precisely but it is there to be heard whenever Jack Layton or Ralph Goodale or Peter MacKay stands to speak. It is there in the vast majority of these daily denunciations. It rings in the ears whenever this House of Commons, full mostly of men dressed up in dark suits, fills with uproarious laughter over something that would not fit any accepted definition of funny. To sit and listen as MPs gather for the primary display of the day is to hear something that sounds like nothing else you will ever encounter in any other part of your life. And that’s nothing to do with decorum or civility—any bar after 6pm on a Friday night is at least as rowdy. It’s about the sound these men and women make when they rise to speak for and to us. It is a tone, a learned affectation.

It is probably true that the politician has never entirely been of us, never sounded like anyone you would know, never talked in a way you wouldn’t mock if you heard it from a friend. This is perhaps by design, maybe even for the best. They are supposed to be leaders. The history books recall those who inspire and stir and call us on. That demands a certain loftiness—the sort of words that can only be pronounced in a certain manner, spoken by a man or woman alone at a podium, looking out over a crowd who look up at him or her in search of something. That individual on stage may be a human, but at that point they more or less cease to be like anyone else.

Here though is often something else entirely. Here be monsters and aliens warning us of even more gruesome things to fear. Here be words spilling forth in some desperate bid for salvation. If we now regard the politician with default suspicion—another of Richard Nixon’s gifts to the world—the politician strives to convince us not that he or she can show us the way, but that his or her opponent is even more worthy of our nightmares.

“The actions of the coalition parties this fall further prove what we have been saying all along. The coalition is alive and well and it is dangerous,” cried one government backbencher this afternoon, moments before the Prime Minister rose to wish all a Merry Christmas. “The coalition is very real and Canadians have every right to be afraid.”

As some politician once said, “it is part of the job to pretend to have emotions that you do not actually feel.” Of course, as this person was a politician, it is impossible to say for sure that they truly believed this. In truth, it is difficult to say how much of a gap exists between what these people feel and what they say they feel. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that what we hear is not so much a wholly invented creation as a mere amplification. Either way, there is something true in all of it—these people are, or at least become, who they present themselves to be. So perhaps everything you could need to know about the Liberal party at the end of 2010 could be learned from the torrent of words—a downpour of aimless verbiage—that spilled forth from Mr. Goodale the other day when he was asked by a reporter to explain his side’s priorities. And maybe everything about this Prime Minister might be gleaned from his bellowing to the Liberal leader the other day that anyone whose loved ones have received medical care from a doctor who was not Canadian are somehow less than worthy.

All of which is to say, this is not theatre. It may not seem real, but it is not pretend. It is some other thing, populated by decidedly other people.

After QP today, Steve Blaney, a government backbencher, rose on a point of order to complain of something Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe had shouted. Mr. Blaney suggested that people should respect each other. This seemed a lovely notion, if only offered rhetorically.

After Mr. Duceppe had more or less refused to apologize for whatever it was he had said, the Speaker rose and invited everyone to proceed forthwith to a little holiday get together. He then wished everyone a Merry Christmas and pronounced the House adjourned until January 31. The sergeant-at-arms came to take the mace away as various members, all seemingly suddenly lighter, crossed the aisle to shake hands with their various counterparts.

The Stats. Pensions and ethics, seven questions each. Disaster relief and government spending, four questions each. Crime, three questions. Rights & Democracy, Afghanistan and foreign aid, two questions each. National security, trade, credit cards, foreign investment, employment and aboriginal affairs, one question each.

John Baird, seven answers. Stephen Harper and Ted Menzies, five answers each. Tony Clement, three answers. Diane Finley, Bev Oda, Rob Nicholson and Lawrence Cannon, two answers each. Denis Lebel, Gail Shea, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Vic Toews, Gordon O’Connor, Joe Preston, Christian Paradis, Peter MacKay, Peter Van Loan and Shelly Glover, one answer each.

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